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London DisastersLondon Fires: Cotton's Wharf
Posted on May 27, 2005 - 06:33 AM by Bill McCann

"No such fire has been known in London since the Fire of 1666: which, by the way, began at a spot exactly opposite this. Two millions, at least, of property destroyed: near eleven acres of ruin: many lives lost, among them the chief of the Fire Brigade."

The fire at 2 a.m. on the Sunday

On Saturday 22 June 1861, a fire in a bundle of hemp in a warehouse at Cotton's Wharf in Tooley Street, Southwark, developed into the largest blaze since the Great Fire of 1666. It quickly spread to adjoining warehouses which contained highly combustible items such as tallow, sugar and saltpetre. The London Fire Engine Establishment, under the charismatic James Braidwood, deployed almost its full force of 80 full-time fire-fighters but their primitive equipment was no match for the conflagration and it burned for two full days.. Braidwood himself, died when a wall collapsed upon him and he was later given a very public hero's funeral at Abney Park Cemetery.

The diarist and connoisseur of Victorian working women, Arthur Mumby, who first sighted it on his way into London by train and has left us the following graphic description of the fire:

"Between Epsom and Cheam, we saw from the train a great fire in the direction of London. A pyramid of red flame on the horizon, sending up a column of smoke that rose high in the air and then spread. At Carshalton, where the villagers were gazing in crowds, as at all the stations, we heard that it was by London Bridge, at cotton's Wharf. At New Cross, the reflection of the firelight on houses and walls began to be visible; and as we drove along the arched way into town, the whole of Bermondsey was in a blaze of light.

"The fire was close to the station; dull brick-red fumes and showers of sparks rose high between it and the river. The station yard, which was as light as day, was crammed with people: railings, lamp posts, every high spot, was alive with climbers. Agains the dark sky southwards, the façade of S. Thomas's Hospital and the tower of S. saviour's stood out white and brilliant; and both were fringed atop with lookers on.

"A few of the regular omnibuses had got, but hardly, into the station: men were struggling for places on them, offering three and four times the fare for standing room on the roofs, to cross London Bridge.

The fire at mid-day on the Monday

"I achieved a box seat on one, and we moved off towards the Bridge, but with the greatest difficulty. The roadway was blocked up with omnibuses, whose passengers stood on the roofs in crowds; with cabs and hansoms, also loaded outside, with wagons, pleasure vans and carts, brought out for the occasion and full of people; and amongst all these, struggling screaming and fighting for a view, was a dense illimitable crowd, which even surged in heaps, as it were, over the parapet of the bridge.

"For near a quarter of a mile, the south bank of the Thames was on fire: a long line of what had been warehouses, their roofs and fronts all gone . . . a mountainous desert of red and black ruin, which smouldered and steamed here and there, sent up sheets of savage intolerable flame a hundred feet high. At intervals a dull thunder was heard through the roar of the fire – an explosion of saltpetre in the vaults, which sent up a pulse of flame higher than before. Burning barges lined the shore: burning oil and tallow poured in cascades from the wharfs. . .

"And all this glowing hell of destruction was backed by enormous, that rolled sullenly across the river and shut out all beyond. . . The river too, which shone like molten gold except where deep black shadows were, was covered with little boats full of spectators, rowing up and down in the overwhelming light.

"So, through the trampling multitude, shouts and cries – roaring flame and ominous thunder, the air full of sparks and the night in a blaze of light, our omnibus moved slowly on, and in half an hour we gained the other end of the bridge. . ."

This plan of the extent of the fire was
commissioned by the Insurance companies.

The fire cost £2 million in insurance claims and the Insurance Companies, who managed the Fire Engine Establishment, gave notice that they could no longer afford to supply a free fire-fighting force. The Government introduced the necessary legislation and, four years later, the Metropolitan Fire Brigade was established.

References: Munby's description is quoted in Derek Hudson's book Munby, Man of Two Worlds: Life and Diaries of Arthur J.Munby, 1828-1910:, published by John Murray in 1972.


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